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911 Arizona Emergency!

I've been writing about the Federal Communication Commission's National Broadband Plan, which seems to touch nearly every infrastructure issue that exists.  I want to make just one more reference to it.

The plan details six goals for improving the nation's high-speed communications networks, which the FCC calls "the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century."  Goal number 5 is "To ensure the safety of the American people, every first responder should have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network." 

Yet Arizona is going in the opposite direction.  Already at the bottom of the U.S. states in funding its 911 emergency services, the state continues to cut funds for these important programs, and continues to raid them to balance the budget.

"State lawmakers sliced the amount of funding in the emergency-system improvement fund by nearly half as they worked to cut $1.1 billion from the fiscal 2011 budget," reports the Arizona Republic.  "And officials are worried there is more to come."

The Republic reports that emergency 911 calls from land lines and cell phones in urban areas won't be interrupted by the state's fiscal problems.  But 911 emergency service calls from rural Arizona would likely be affected.  According to the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), the effects of the state's cuts to emergency 911 service include:

  • The location of 911 calls from cell phones in rural areas, including parts of the highly-trafficked Grand Canyon, won't be pinpointed.  911 calls in urban areas will still be mapped.
  • If the state were to face a major disaster, there will be no backup centers to handle overflow emergency calls.
  • The state has planned to add the capability to take text or digital messages requesting emergency help; that plan will be scrapped.
  • The state's reverse 911 system is a "critical tool" which notifies residents of an emergency and advises them how to cope.  Arizona currently relies on federal grants to maintain that system; those grants could vanish with the state cuts.

The state has long struggled to adequately fund a modern 911 emergency service.  In 2001, lawmakers increased funding from a monthly cell phone surcharge to 37 cents, which was supposed to help emergency centers improve tracing technology and increase staffing.

It didn't.  Two years later, lawmakers raided those funds (which probably wasn't legal) and in 2007, they cut the cell phone surcharge to just 20 cents.  Ten years ago the fund had nearly $50 million.  It had just $5 million before lawmakers took another $2.2 million last week.

"If the Legislature sweeps the remaining money . . . it would have a major impact on our ability to adequately serve the emergency-communication needs of the 3.7 million residents of Maricopa County," Steve Kreis, chair of MAG's 911 oversight committee told the Republic.

Does 911 cell locating technology really matter?

It sounded like such a dumb question to write, I almost thought about deleting it.  But it's important for two reasons (and the answer, by the way, is yes, of course cell-locating technology matters).

  1. Nearly every adult Arizonan has a cell phone.  Many don't even have land lines at home anymore.  So 911 emergency service needs to be as good for cell phones -- everywhere -- as it is for land lines.
  2. If you have an emergency in a rural area, chances are good that you don't know where you are (at least not well enough to guide rescuers to you).  Cell-locating technology in these situations is critical.  Especially in the Grand Canyon, which is hugely important to the state as a tourist attraction (about 5 million visitors each year).

Yet lowering the monthly cell phone surcharge that funds these important programs and then raiding the funds for other purposes is just the kind of short-sighted thinking that plagues our state. 

It's the same kind of short-sighted thinking I saw in the recent proposal to move responsibility for juvenile corrections from the state to the counties with no plan whatsoever for making it work.  (Fortunately, the Governor's office backed off that terrible idea.  Juvenile corrections may well be better off in county hands, but a plan needs to be developed for how counties will manage it.)

Even in times of fiscal crisis, it's important to think long term, with an eye toward the widespread and long-range consequences of the decisions we make today.

And, as I talked about in my posts on the state's healthcare cuts, it's really critical to remember the immense economic value that fit-for-purpose infrastructure brings to this state.  If Arizona can't even provide reliable 911 service, what company will want to locate its operations here?  If they might not get emergency service in the Grand Canyon -- one of the state's biggest tourist attractions -- will visitors think twice about coming to Arizona?  Those are losses that the state cannot afford.

Written on Thursday, 25 March 2010 09:13 by Gary Yaquinto

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